Stephens, David: Why on Earth did Labor reappoint Tony Abbott to the Council of the Australian War Memorial?

David Stephens*

‘Why on Earth did Labor reappoint Tony Abbott to the Council of the Australian War Memorial?’ Honest History, 27 September 2022 updated

Update 19 October 2022: Could the answer to the above question lie in the suggestion that Kim Beazley might become a member, then Chair of the Council?


Ten days ago, the Labor government reappointed former Coalition Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, to the Council of the Australian War Memorial. This passed up an opportunity to start refreshing the Council, preferably with some historians. There are some arguments for that course here.

Perhaps there is some crafty political argument for this reappointment. Perhaps it was a ploy to provoke Abbott’s former colleague, Brendan Nelson, to resign as Chair of the Council, which Nelson is duly doing in due course. (We have no idea whether Abbott or Nelson are or were best mates or hate each other’s entrails, but it’s a theory.) Perhaps it was just a rush job because Abbott’s original term was about to run out, the Governor-General (whose sign-off was needed on the paperwork) was about to head overseas, and no-one thought to leave the slot vacant for a bit till some alternatives had been canvassed. (As has happened before.) Instead, they put Abbott in for three more years.

Below is a repost of something we did back in July, when the Grattan Institute released a report on the composition of 19 Australian government bodies, and pointed out that the Council of the Memorial was the ‘bluest’ – for Coalition connections – of all of them. It’s still that way. Who woulda thought it?


The Australian War Memorial features in a Grattan Institute report and media stories about the tendency of all governments, but especially the outgoing Morrison Coalition one, to appoint mates to government positions. Grattan found four Memorial Council members with Coalition connections out of ten non ex-officio positions, but added an asterisk to indicate two or more others with ‘soft’ political connections, such as being a known donor. It names no names, but we will, based on publicly available information: Tony Abbott, Brendan Nelson, Josephine Stone, and Rhonda Vanzella as Coalition connections; at least Glenn Keys of current members as a political donor – to both sides – and Kerry Stokes as another political donor – to both sides – though he ceased to be a member of the Council and Chair early in April 2022, coincidentally the month that Grattan was doing its statistics.

The report. Report authors in The Conversation. Plus Australian Financial ReviewCrikeySaturday PaperSydney Morning Herald. The chart at page 17 of the Grattan report shows that the Memorial, with four out of ten members Coalition-connected, is the most ‘blue’ (for Coalition connections) of the 19 Australian government institutions listed.

An important point from Grattan’s Chief Executive, Danielle Wood, is worth quoting:

People often think of corruption as bags of money, exchanging hands for favours. But in a way, this sort of grey corruption is more insidious. It undermines institutions over time. It undermines democracy and therefore, I do think it is a corruption of our political process.

Grattan wants the federal government to legislate for a transparent, merit-based selection process for public roles, including creation of a new public appointments commissioner role to oversee an independent panel process for assessing applicants. Ministers would have to select candidates from a recommended shortlist.

There are broader issues here. This week, we have Grattan (above) on ‘grey corruption’ and jobs for mates, plus The Australia Institute reporting overseas research on how well business profits are trending – despite the pandemic and in contrast with real wages. Before the election, we had a report from the Australian Democracy Network on ‘State Capture’, defined as ‘the exercise of power by private actors — through control over resources, threat of violence, or other forms of influence — to shape policies or implementation in service of their narrow interests’.

We changed the government recently but what else stayed the same in terms of who really holds power, who hobnobs with whom, who owes and calls in favours, and who picks up sitting fees for a few days a year on government business? See this from the days when Honest History collected reports about growing inequality in Australia. There is inequality of power as well as inequality of income and wealth and in the twenty-first century – in the land that those Diggers fought for – they are all linked .

Back to the War Memorial, apart from political and old mates appointments, the War Memorial Council suffers also from a surfeit of military brass, too many long-term appointments, a lack of historians, and a couple of recent questionable re-appointments. It’s way more complex than mates.

One of the commentators on the Grattan work wondered why the Memorial was so packed with Coalition appointees. The implication of the comment seemed to be, ‘The Memorial is a sacred site, why politicise it to this extent?’ The answer is simply because the Memorial is more than politics: if, through the sort of people you appoint to the Memorial Council, you can influence how the nation commemorates, how it interprets some of its past to its present and future, you are influencing the whole direction of the country. Everything connects to everything else. Lest We Forget.

*David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and has been convener of the Heritage Guardians group, opposed to the $548m extensions of the War Memorial. He is co-editor with Alison Broinowski of The Honest History Book (2017).

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